RULES are there to be broken in politics, like in everything else. It is often said, when discussing the UK, that there is no way the Conservatives can increase their share of the vote at the next general election. By 2015, they will have been power-sharing for five years, and have presided over austerity as well as a belated return to growth. Labour, the argument goes, is bound to gain.
There is indeed a clear downwards pattern for winning parties: in 1997, Labour got 43.2 per cent of the vote, in 2001, 40.7 per cent; and in 2005 just 35.2 per cent. Or take the Tories: in 1979, they got 43.9 per cent; in 1983, 42.4 per cent; in 1987, 42.2 per cent; and in 1992, 41.9 per cent. No wonder so many are gloomy about the Tories’ prospects in 2015: it seems extremely difficult for the incumbent party ever to increase its share.
Such determinism is of course nonsense. Look at what happened in Germany yesterday: regardless of what the exact final outcome turns out to be, this is the best result for the CDU/CSU since 1990, when the results were distorted by the country’s reunification. The party – the dominant component of the previous coalition – is up an extraordinary 8.3 percentage points since 2009, according to preliminary numbers, grabbing around 42 per cent of the vote.
As Sir Karl Popper, the great philosopher, might have put it, if you’ve only ever seen white swans, you could be forgiven for thinking that all swans must be white; but the moment you spot a black one you know that your theory has just be falsified. Angela Merkel’s astonishing achievement – by all accounts, even she didn’t think she could do that well – will boost the UK Tories no end this morning. They could, if they up their game hugely, see off Ukip and are lucky, boost their votes in 2015 and defeat history.
The Tories will also be delighted that the junior partners of the outgoing German coalition – the Free Democrats (FDP) saw their share of the vote plummet from 14.6 per cent to around 4.6 per cent. The electorate liked Merkel – so voted for the real deal, rather than bother backing the FDP. David Cameron will be hoping for the same effect. The left-wing SPD rose 2.6 points to just 25.6 per cent; even if Merkel ends up having to strike a grand coalition deal, her party will dominate far more than it did during the previous such arrangement.
But just as silly “laws” cry out for refutation, so do simplistic parallels. Britain is not Germany, and Cameron is no Merkel. Those who have defected from the UK Lib Dems have tended to shift to Labour, not the Tories, and Ukip is doing well, so those on the centre-right of British politics shouldn’t rejoice too soon. The defeated free-marketish FDP differs ideologically from the UK Lib Dems; their departure from the German Parliament removes an obstacle to corporatism and neuters a pro-enterprise voice. The Eurosceptic AFD just failed to get seats, bad news for those seeking German cooperation to renegotiate the UK’s membership with the EU.
Given that Merkel looks short of an absolute majority, and has ruled out a minority government, the most likely scenario now seems to be a CDU/CSU-SDP grand coalition (she could conceivably do a deal with the Greens). There is no meaningful difference between CDU and SPD when it comes to the Eurozone; with minor tweaks, German policy towards Club Med nations, the European Central Bank and the rest will continue unchanged.
Yet it would have been in the UK government’s best interest to see a continuation of Merkel’s previous coalition, now an impossibility. Traditionally, the junior party in the coalition gets the foreign minister’s job, and the SPD will undoubtedly try and mend ties with socialist France. The SPD is also rabidly anti-City. All in all, those Tories celebrating last night’s vote as a triumph for conservatism might soon come to regret their euphoria.